NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

May 15, 2014

House battles over Health Connector fiasco

By Matt Murphy and Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

---- — BOSTON — The House passed a $144 million spending bill Wednesday anchored by $50 million to account for an explosion of patients enrolled in health coverage through the state’s Group Insurance Commission seeking medical services.

The latest midyear spending bill cleared the House 119-29 after lawmakers engaged in debate over the cost of the state’s failed Obamacare health exchange website, funding for local road projects and a Republican proposal aimed at protecting children born to drug-addicted mothers.

A Republican-led attempt to withhold funding for the Health Connector Authority until the Patrick administration provides a full accounting of the costs of the failed rollout of the health exchange website was defeated with only a smattering of Democrats joining in support.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey described the spending measure as a “bill-paying exercise,” but urged lawmakers that moving forward the Legislature should be “cautious” in its approach to spending for the remainder of the year in light of April revenues falling $107 million short of expectations.

The bill, which now moves to the Senate, includes $34 million for public bar advocates and $10.4 million for the Department of Children and Families.

Another $27.6 million was included to reimburse local school districts for students who enroll in charter schools. The additional money for charter school reimbursements fully funds the program at over $100 million. Supporters of lifting the cap on charter school enrollment hope it will ease concerns of opponents worried about charter schools draining resources from traditional public schools.

The additional funding for the Group Insurance Commission became necessary as enrollees in the GIC began utilizing services at a greater rate than anticipated, according to the Patrick administration. While the GIC was able to control costs during the recession, a senior budget official said more people covered through the GIC have been seeking out doctors and treatment as the economy recovers.

The bill also includes $11.3 million for the Department of Developmental Services to cover operational expenses of the Fernald Development Center in Waltham, a school for the developmentally disabled that has been slated for several years to close but, for various reasons, remains open and must be funded, according to officials.

House Democrats rejected a Republican proposal to hold back $65 million from the Health Connector Authority until the agency provides a report to the Legislature detailing the costs associated with the failed enrollment website. Democrats argued it is unnecessary.

Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Democrat from Worthington, said the Patrick administration agreed last month to provide the information, while House Minority Leader Bradley Jones argued that lawmakers should hold the money as leverage after weeks have passed without any additional information.

“We are going to continue to go down this path and we are never going to have a full picture or a full accounting until the hand-off comes for the next governor,” Jones said on the House floor. “The next governor is going to open that drawer and say, ‘Oh my God, we have to cover all these expenses.’ ”

Massachusetts was once the “shining leader” in universal health care coverage, Jones said, adding, “We royally screwed it up. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask what does the bill for that debacle look like?”

Rep. Jay Barrows (D-Mansfield), a member of the Health Care Financing Committee, said the committee asked Connector officials for the costs a month ago. “So far it has been crickets,” he said.

Public Health Committee Co-chairman Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez said he appreciated the bid to force transparency, but added, “To get to this point where we say ‘Give us the information and until you give us that information we’re not going to let go of the money,’ I don’t think that’s the best way to go.”

The amendment was voted down 40 to 107.

Lawmakers also rejected a proposal by Rep. Geoff Diehl, a Republican from Whitman, to allocate $100 million from the state’s rainy day fund to cities and towns for road projects. Many lawmakers have been frustrated by Gov. Deval Patrick’s refusal to release an additional $100 million in borrowing for Chapter 90 road projects, but lawmakers could force the issue by including it in a budget.

Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett) argued if the state took money out of the budget for capital projects, it would be frowned upon by bond raters, and could make the state’s borrowing costs go up.

The House approved an alternative amendment offered by Straus directing the Department of Revenue, Department of Transportation and the Executive Office of Administration and Finance to report on the effects of taking $100 million out of the stabilization fund.

Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, a Whitman Republican, offered several amendments that were defeated, including a proposal to require a public hearing before any tax increases become law to avoid a future “fiasco” such as the software services sales tax that was repealed last year after business leaders voiced deep concerns to lawmakers.

O’Connell also proposed to require DCF to take any infants born with drugs in their system or to drug-addicted mothers into state custody, and to force mothers into treatment to break them of their addictions. The House decided to study O’Connell’s amendment after Rep. David Linsky argued it would inappropriate to insert such a measure into a budget bill and said it raised due process considerations.

Linsky, who chairs the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, said he shared O’Connell’s concern and hoped to address the issue after the Child Welfare League concludes its review of DCF and issues final recommendations that he expects on May 25. Linsky said at that time his committee may propose legislation.